27 alternatives to the Honolulu rail’s Plan A?

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii in late April obtained a previously secret document from the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation showing the city agency has analyzed 27 alternatives to its current plan for its troubled rail project.

Now the document is being discussed community-wide, with veteran journalist Catherine Cruz of Hawaii Public Radio even using the document as a springboard for rail-related interviews in the days ahead, starting at 11 a.m. on KHPR’s “The Conversation,” at 88.1 FM.

First up in the series was our own Keli’i Akina, institute president, who spoke with Cruz on Monday, May 10, 2021, for about 7 minutes.

“I think the bottom line is that the rail has to be far more transparent,” he concluded. “People need to know what the options are and what the costs are, and what the real future of rail looks like.”

Click the image to hear the conversation with Akina. A complete transcript is below.

5-10-21 Keli’i Akina with Catherine Cruz on KHPR’s “The Conversation”

Catherine Cruz: We kick off this week with news about a rail report that the HART Board tried to keep confidential, but thanks to the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, it is on the table for all to see: 27 alternatives to the original plan that the HART Board is analyzing. This morning we hear from Keli’i Akina about why it’s important that the broader community knows what those alternatives are.

Keli’i Akina: For many, many years, Hawaii citizens have been asking the question, “How much is this going to cost and when is it going to be done?” But we haven’t gotten really good answers. At the Grassroot Institute, we wanted to find out what’s really behind all the thinking going on. Earlier this year, we learned about a confidential HART document that was supposedly answering these questions, but it wasn’t available to the public, and people who tried to get it were turned down. We went ahead and filed a Uniform Information Practices Act and were able to get a copy.

When we got it, the copy was marked “confidential; not for distribution,” which puzzled us because there wasn’t really anything confidential about it. It talked about the original plan for the rail, which would go from Kapolei to Ala Moana and 27 alternatives. The amazing thing is that there was careful analysis of 27 alternative paths. It looks like somebody was taking that pretty seriously.

Cruz: Were you surprised at what you saw?

Akina: We really weren’t surprised, because we were able to tell from the analysis that HART believes the original plan from Kapolei to Ala Moana has real problems with it. They identified some pros and cons. They looked at 27 other alternatives. What was amazing is that these alternatives were quite creative.

Cruz: List some of them.

Akina: We can put them into different categories. Some of them have to do with utility changes, some of them have to do with at-grade construction, others have to do with changing the technology. Let me give you some examples. One is to terminate the rail at Middle Street and build an elevated automatic people mover. It’s kind of like Disneyland. Another one would be to terminate the rail at Middle Street and switch to the bus rapid transit at that point. A lot of people have been proposing, that in any case. Another example would be to have the rail go underground for the distance to Ala Moana.

There is quite a bit of creativity. What really strikes us is that HART did quite a bit of work in listing the pros and the cons for each of these alternatives. In terms of the con, it seems that the biggest issue for HART was concern that if they switched to an alternative, it would jeopardize the rail funding from the federal government, from the Federal Transit Administration, and that’s about $800 million. There’s the fear that if another alternative was used, we’d have to pay that back.

Let me tell you, what strikes me as funny about this is that there’s no evidence of this. The FTA has not said that it would cancel the funding and require repayment of that. Nobody at HART has really approached the FTA to find out conclusively what their answer is.

Cruz: We have heard that, though, many times when some of the proponents of halting the project at Middle Street were beating the drum. That was the line that we heard from Mayor Kirk Caldwell, from the HART Board.

Akina: The problem with that is, first, the FTA has not told us that they would cancel the funding if we used an alternative to the original plan. Somebody has to confirm that. Secondly, even if the FTA were to tell us we have to repay $800 million, we’re talking about spending $3.25 billion or more just to get ourselves into that position. That’s not a great trade-off.

Cruz: What’s your hope now? We have seen the price tag for rail go from $5 billion to more than $11 billion. There’s real concern that we can’t afford this.

Akina: You’re absolutely right. It doesn’t matter whether people are for the rail or against the rail, people are concerned about the finances. We say something at the Grassroot Institute, just a little ditty that my staff had told me … “Pro-rail or anti-rail, it’s all the same. They’re taking our money and it’s a shame. Hey, politicians, lift the veil and audit rail, audit rail, audit the rail.” 

I think that’s the point in which we all come together. We want to see transparency and accountability. In fact, the figures are even worse than what you cited, Catherine. In 2006, the draft plan for rail had the cost at $2.5 billion.

By 2008 when we started, the Oahu voters approved $4 billion. The most recent figure given by the CEO of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation is $12.4 billion, and she’s already announced some issues that will raise the price even higher. But a bigger issue is that the rail was supposed to be partially usable by 2018 and completed by 2020. Now the latest date is 2031, 10 years from now. I think that the public is very concerned as to why the costs have skyrocketed and the delays have ensued. People are just saying, “Tell us the truth. Be more accountable about the whole project.”

Cruz: There does seem to be this opportunity now with this pandemic, which has put the spotlight on the economy. We’re at a very shaky time. Money that had been set aside and earmarked with the excise tax, the hotel room tax, those things aren’t there.

Akina: We’re facing tremendous challenges on the fiscal side of things, in terms of the financial recovery from the coronavirus and the fact that both the state and the city are in deep debt. 

This is really a time for opportunity. I think we should take this moment and press the pause button on rail and have an open dialogue about what should happen next. It needs to be a solution that has full transparency from HART about the problems, the costs and the possible solutions. We also need to do some updating, because when the project was conceived of, we were in a generation earlier, in terms of transportation. We have to look at things that have changed, including the technology and so forth. 

But before going forward, one question has to be settled. We need to clarify with the FTA what will happen to the grant money if we move forward with an alternate plan, and then put all the plans on the table. Really, for our mayor and the board of HART, and the people of Honolulu and the state, this really is an opportunity to reset and regroup and to look at a new pathway forward.

Cruz: We hope to hear different voices on this very subject in the weeks to come. Thank you so much. Is there anything else you’d want to underscore?

Akina: I think the bottom line is that the rail has to be far more transparent. People need to know what the options are, what the costs are and what the real future of rail looks like. That’s the only way that the rail can recapture the trust of the public.

Cruz: That was Keli’i Akina, head of the Grassroot Institute of Hawai


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